Look, I love West Side Story’s music and dance sequences, both versions. I have listened to the 1961 cast album and 1961 movie version numerous times. Yes, I was crushed when I found out that most Puerto Rican leads were white people in brownface and that Natalie Woods was not Puerto Rican (hey, I was twelve years old). And I didn’t understand that much of what I saw on the screen was not real Puerto Rican life as I knew it (I’m half Puerto Rican and half Dominican but 100% American born in the South Bronx).
The original 1957 Broadway play was conceived and produced by a group of Manhattan white guys. One of them, Stephen Sondheim, almost didn’t join the project because he said he had never known a Puerto Rican. The “Latin” music for the play and the original movie was written and produced by a very famous white guy, Leonard Bernstein. The Broadway production and film were written by a bunch of white guys. A white guy, Jerome Robbins, did the choreography. The same with the film direction, Robert Wise.
But that didn’t matter to me the first time I saw the original West Side Story. I was just so enthralled by the whole spectacle of the music and choreography and the story that I didn’t care about the rest.
A modern-day version of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg (a white guy), has been released, and now I find myself caring about all the rest and more. I saw it on the big screen this past Saturday, and I have so many mixed feelings about it. There have been significant changes to the casting (no brownface here), scenes, plotlines, and general character of the movie. Many of those changes were made to deal with the criticism over the years about how Puerto Ricans were portrayed in the Broadway play and the 1961 film. There is still great music and choreography in this 2021 version. The actors did their jobs with great singing and dancing. Even the acting wasn’t bad considering the words written for them, again by a white guy, Tony Kushner. The modern version was choreographed by Justin Peck (I don’t believe he’s Latino, although he is married to a Latina). Are you getting the point?
I’ll repeat it. I love the music and dance sequences and the fact that there are real Latinos (No, they’re not all Puerto Ricans. Hey, you can’t get it all) in the film. Spielberg has said in interviews that there was much research and collaboration with Puerto Rican scholars to get it right. I applaud that. Rita Moreno (The only authentic Puerto Rican lead in the 1961 film) is an actress and an executive producer for the 2021 version. Spielberg credits her with helping to get the film right. I applaud that also. Then, why did I walk out saying to myself, “It’s time to put this baby to bed.”
No one clapped. No one cheered. There wasn’t a peep out of the audience during or after the film ended. I found the film lacking sabor. It was tedious, slow, meandering between the song and dance numbers. At one point, I wished they had gotten rid of all the talking and just did back-to-back song and dance numbers.
I sat there watching the credits looking for all the Latinx names in the crew, and I saw a few (Of course, there could have been more since many people might have Anglo last names). However, based on my experience, I’m willing to bet that the overwhelming majority were non-Latinx. Why am I not shocked?
Some changes were made to place Puerto Ricans in a positive light. I mean, they’re not all lazy gang members terrorizing poor old white and Puerto Rican people. They have jobs, and some even have careers as boxers. So, I’ll give them that. But, I knew that something was wrong the moment I thought about the film’s point of view. Aside from an opening sequence that involved the Sharks (The Puerto Rican gang), I felt like vast swathes of the film were all about the Jets, the white gang, telling it from their point of view. My wife disagrees. Okay, two people can disagree on that (I’m right).
But the part that made me stop and gasp was the scene at the famous dance where the Jets and the Sharks set their rumble and Maria and Tony meet. Now, I know my memory is not what it used to be, but I remember the 1961 version having a more subdued and well-produced sequence where they meet, and it’s love at first sight. In this version, they drift away from the dance floor and meet behind the bleachers, so they’re alone. Okay, cool. Not very romantic to me, but what do I know. Tony and Maria cozy up when Maria suddenly lunges at Tony to kiss him. I mean enough that Tony falls back. Wait, why is this Puerto Rican woman practically throwing herself at this gringo boy she just met. Would a young Puerto Rican woman in the late fifties, early sixties who has been taught better suddenly throw herself at a man? I don’t think so. It just hit me as the failed stereotype of Latinx women being “hot” women who would give it up for a dime. Come on.
Don’t even ask me about the attempted rape scene in the candy store. The one in the 1961 film featured Rita Moreno as the victim. This time, she plays the store owner and intercedes to stop it. I found it a little too real that I wondered, “uh, has anyone heard of #MeToo?” It just seemed so, not 2021 (Yeah, I know it’s supposed to be the late fifties, but still). And that’s the problem with the entire film.
From the Boricua Pride movements beginning in the late sixties until now, Puerto Ricans and other Latinx people have been fighting for control over their portrayal, images, and narratives, in Hollywood and the media. There have been valiant efforts to prod Hollywood, Broadway, and Television to allow us to tell our own story. Okay, most Latinx producers, directors, and writers don’t have the clout of a Steven Spielberg. And people will argue that West Side Story wasn’t just about Puerto Ricans. You’re right, but there would be no West Side Story without them, so don’t even try that crazy line of reasoning.
I find myself wondering when Hollywood is going to get it finally. Regurgitating old tropes, no matter how many Latinx participants they put in it, doesn’t change the fundamental that white guys produced, wrote, and directed the film. As many others have said about this film, it’s time to let it go except for the soundtrack album. I still like that. I’ll just close my eyes and imagine that some Latinx composers and musicians created it. Yeah, I know, denial is not a good antidote for reality. Damn.